According to the United Nations, the global food system accounts for about one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, 70% of freshwater use, and 78% of freshwater pollution.
As a result, there have been discussions on how changing dietary habits can help counter growing emissions. One suggestion has proposed cutting back on meat consumption.
With research finding that organic meat can still contribute to climate change, it is important to ask if following a meat-free, plant-based diet can really help protect the planet.
How Does Eating Meat Affect Emissions?
In a recent study from the University of Oxford, researchers analyzed the actual diets of 55,500 people in the United Kingdom. They also featured data from some 38,000 farms in 119 countries.
The dietary data came from a cancer and nutrition study that had tracked participants for more than two decades.
In the more recent study, participants reported what they ate and drank over 12 months. The team, led by Peter Scarborough, a professor of population health at Oxford, then classified the participant’s self-reported responses into six different groups: vegan, vegetarian, fish-eaters, and low-, medium-, and high-meat-eaters.
Scarborough and his team then connected the dietary responses with the databases. They then estimated the environmental impact of 57,000 foods as part of their final analysis. Environmental metrics used included greenhouse gas emissions, land usage, water use, water pollution, and biodiversity loss.
A Plant Based Diet Is Better For Emissions
“Our results, which use data from over 38,000 farms in over 100 countries, show that high-meat diets have the biggest impact for many important environmental indicators, including climate change and biodiversity loss.” (Scarborough, 2023)
The study, published in Nature Food, found that following a meat-free diet translated to a much lower environmental impact.
Per the study, vegan diets, compared to meat-heavy diets, resulted in 75% less land use, 54% less water use, 66% less biodiversity loss, and 93% less methane production.
Should We All Go Plant-Based?
“Our dietary choices have a big impact on the planet. Cutting down the amount of meat and dairy in your diet can make a big difference to your dietary footprint,” Dr. Scarborough, The Guardian.
Dr. Scarborough’s recent research isn’t the first to show how avoiding meat can mitigate the climate crisis. In recent years, many studies have shown that going meat-free can benefit both your health and that of the planet.
But what about the criticisms of plant-based diets, whose production may have environmental effects?
Take almond milk. While a popular milk alternative, almond milk not only requires a lot of water to produce, but it also has an impact on the bee population.
Per Dr. Scarborough, the new study shows that plant-based diets still have a far smaller toll on the environment than animal-based ones, regardless of how the food was produced.
“What our work says is even in the worst case scenarios, the environmental footprint of not only vegan diets but low meat diets are much, much better than high meat consuming diets,” said Dr. Scarborough to The New York Times.
Dr. Scarborough adds that the research reinforces the message that the amount of meat we consume is strongly related to our environmental footprint,
“Small changes from being a high meat eater to a low meat eater can make a huge difference in environmental impact.”
Want to know more?
Scarborough, P., Clark, M., Cobiac, L., Papier, K., Knuppel, A., Lynch, J., Harrington, R., Key, T., & Springmann, M. (2023). Vegans, vegetarians, fish-eaters and meat-eaters in the UK show discrepant environmental impacts. Nature Food, 4(7), 565-574. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-023-00795-w